With their Game 2 collapse still fresh in their minds, the Los Angeles Lakers avoided a sequel with the only game plan they're confident will work against the younger, faster Oklahoma City Thunder.
They got slow. They got into the paint. And they got to the free-throw line 42 times, incredibly making all but one of those shots.
Kobe Bryant knows it isn't pretty. He also knows it's probably the only way the Lakers can pull the high-flying Thunder down to their level.
Bryant scored 14 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers rallied late for a 99-96 victory in Game 3 on Friday night, cutting the Thunder's second-round series lead to 2-1.
"That's two games in a row that we controlled the tempo," said Bryant, who surpassed Gail Goodrich's 1972 team record of 17 free throws without a miss.
"We did a good job of controlling the pace of the game and being physical," Bryant added. "It's not taxing, it's fun. It's a challenge, and we all enjoy that. I know I certainly do. You want to be against an opponent that you respect, and you know is going to bring it physically and emotionally."
The Lakers were close to a historically insurmountable playoff deficit when the Thunder went ahead 92-87 with 3 minutes left. Instead, they finished on a 12-4 run, scoring six points on free throws in the final 33 seconds and earning the chance to even the series in Game 4 on Saturday night.
Metta World Peace swiped the ball from Kevin Durant and hit two free throws with 12.9 seconds left for the third-seeded Lakers. When Durant missed a potential tying 3-pointer before Andrew Bynum blocked Serge Ibaka's shot at the buzzer, the Lakers' frenzied crowd celebrated only their second victory in the last six playoff games.
"We continued to work, even when they got the lead a couple of times in the fourth quarter," said Pau Gasol, who had 12 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. "It's in us. We want to win this series, we want to beat this team, and we will do whatever it takes. Obviously, we know how hard it is going to be, but we are ready for it."
The back-to-back schedule won't help the Lakers' weary legs in their 11th playoff game in 21 days. Yet while the Thunder have shown more skill and athleticism than the Lakers can match, Los Angeles has largely controlled the tempo for two straight games.
Who knows what's possible in the shadow of the Lakers' 16 championship banners?
"It's going to take a mental commitment on our part in order to fight through the fatigue we might feel (Saturday)," Gasol said. "It's going to be all will, and desire, and effort. Just pushing ourselves through everything and anything that we might be feeling."
Durant scored 31 points before missing his last shot for Oklahoma City, which seemed poised to move to the brink of its second straight trip to the Western Conference finals. Instead, the Thunder lost for the first time in the postseason — but they didn't exactly appear shaken by their late struggles.
"It was just one of those games where we didn't close it out," Russell Westbrook said. "But we played hard, and we'll be ready for tomorrow."
Westbrook and James Harden scored 21 points apiece for the Thunder, who couldn't match the Lakers' late-game execution after soundly out-executing the Lakers in Game 2.
The Lakers said the 41-of-42 performance at the line was the second-best in NBA playoff history for teams with more than 30 attempts. Only Dallas' 49-for-50 effort against San Antonio on May 19, 2003, was better.
"We put them on the line," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "We can't do that. Down the stretch, you have to defend them without fouling and rebound the basketball. Unfortunately, we came up short."
Bynum had 15 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers, who got 12 points apiece from Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake. The Lakers still got uncomfortably close to an 0-3 deficit, which has never been overcome in NBA history.
Oklahoma City's bench celebrated a 92-87 lead on Westbrook's breakaway dunk with 2:55 to play, but the Lakers trimmed away with Gasol's free throws, Bryant's layup and several possessions of tenacious defense. Bryant's free throws put the Lakers ahead with 1:09 to play.
Durant immediately hit a go-ahead jumper with a hand squarely in his face, but Bryant added two more free throws — his 15th and 16th — to put Los Angeles ahead 95-94. The Thunder finished 26 of 28 from the line, but the Lakers went 17 for 18 in the fourth quarter alone.
"We knew they were going to approach the game with a lot of intensity down 0-2," Durant said. "We did a great job of fighting back and taking a lead. ... We can play any type of basketball. That's what's good about our team. We can play fast. We can play slow. That's what tonight was, and so was Game 2. But both games, we did a good job of fighting. Tonight, we just didn't come out on top."
The game was the first of four second-round NBA playoff games in just over 48 hours at Staples Center, also the site of the NHL's Western Conference finals between and Kings and Phoenix on Thursday and Sunday. The top-seeded San Antonio Spurs will face the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday in an afternoon game before the Thunder and Lakers play Game 4.
Thanks to the NBA's shortened schedule, the Lakers are playing their first back-to-back playoff games since May 22-23, 1999, in the second round against San Antonio during another season shortened by labor strife.
NOTES: Before the game, Gasol received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his charity work as a UNICEF ambassador. World Peace won the award last season. ... Kendrick Perkins had six points in 30 minutes, but Brooks put no limit on his minutes in the back-to-back games despite the veteran's sore hip. ... NBA Commissioner David Stern, Denzel Washington, Snoop Dogg, The Game, Ice Cube, Redskins QB Robert Griffin III and the Los Angeles Kings' Mike Richards, Drew Doughty and Jarret Stoll attended the game.